It’s not every day that you see preservationists speak out against designating a new landmark, but that’s what happened on Thursday as the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing about designating Union Square Park a city scenic landmark. The LPC is continuing its process of dealing with its backlog of 95 items that have been on the calendar since before 2010. Thursday was the first day to deal with properties in Manhattan.
A potter’s field until 1807, Union Square Park is already a National Historic Landmark. While that recognizes its significance as the place where, on September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was observed, it does not actually protect it from changes. Designating it a scenic landmark would do that. Central Park and Fort Tryon Park are designated scenic landmarks and changes within them must be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Union Square Park, however, is not Central Park or Fort Tryon Park. While it very often is a hubbub of activity, it isn’t really beloved. It’s also not big. While Union Square Park (with the plazas and subway entrances) occupies three blocks, the genuine park-like space only occupies a little more than one block.
The idea of designating it has been heard before – on July 12, 1977 and September 20, 1977. Obviously, things never got anywhere. If some of those who spoke against designation had spoken then, it might have had more support. Since then it has been altered significantly.
Jack Taylor, speaking for the Union Square Community Coalition, said that designating the park as it is today “would be a historical travesty.” “And it pains me personally, as a committed preservationist, to take a position that seemingly dismisses landmark protection for a fabled but now flawed part of New York City history,” he added.
He noted that even the plaque recognizing the designation as a National Historic Landmark is “installed in an almost undiscoverable location – in the South Plaza of Union Square Park instead of where it rightfully belongs, in the North Plaza.”
The Historic Districts Council, which represents over 500 organizations across the city, also came out against designating Union Square Park. “With two centuries of changes to the park, it is difficult to determine original historic fabric; moreover, what fabric from which period of time,” HDC’s Kelly Carroll said.
“While the entities responsible for the stewardship of the park have been studious about interesting improvements, they have not had a good history of respecting its heritage and unfortunately, the park has been a magnet for accretions,” Carroll added. “The north plaza no longer is an uninterrupted expanse, undermining its claim to fame. Because of the lack of historic integrity, HDC does not support designation of Union Square as a New York City Scenic Landmark.”
There was some support for designation. Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of Community Board 5’s Landmarks Committee, testified in favor.
From this point, the commission will hold public meetings, at which time it will consider either prioritizing designation for some items by December 2016, removing items from the calendar by voting not to designate, or removing items from the calendar by issuing a no action letter.